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Why wasn't he dead?
Nick stared up at the featureless white ceiling of his hospital room as the beeping of a heart monitor punctuated the panic flowing through his veins. Why hadn't they killed him? Why five years of captivity insteadin a shipping container, on a cargo ship, floating around in international waters?
And why couldn't he remember what came just before his kidnapping? The doctors told him he'd sustained a serious head injury at some point during his incarceration. Whether a captor had hit him during an interrogation or he'd fallen during one of the massive open-sea storms that had tossed him like a cork inside his steel prison, he had no recollection.
He coughed thickly. Supposedly, his pneumonia was mostly under control now. It had been touch and go there for a while. But the worry lurking in his nurses' eyes had eased in the past day or so. He gathered he was out of the woods, which was good news.
They were still working on clearing his body of various other infections and trying to restore normal function to his digestive tract. The only way he was putting on weight was via the massive calorie infusions running through his IV.
They'd cut his dark hair and shaved off his matted beard, revealing the unnatural paleness of his usually olive complexion. The psychiatrists said he might never remember the lost time, a memory gap spanning approximately two years prior to his capture and the first three years or so of his imprisonment. Funny how the shrinks were trying so hard to retrieve those memories and he was trying equally hard not to retrieve them. Absolute certainty vibrated ominously in his gut, warning him that whatever lurked in that black hole of lost time was best left there.
Was whatever he'd forgotten the reason he was still alive? Had his captors been waiting for him to remember something? Or was there some other, more sinister reason that someone had been hell-bent on imprisoning him?
Maybe he was just being paranoid. Although it wasn't paranoia if someone was really after him. Even now, he expected his keepers to burst into his hospital room and haul him back to his box. The idea actually made a certain sick sense. If his captors had orders to keep him alive and he'd gotten too sick to treat on the ship, they could've cooked up this whole rescue ruse to fatten him up and get him healthy enough to toss back in Hell.
Laura Delaneythe woman who'd rescued him from his metal prison and one of the only faces he remembered from the lost yearsclaimed the two of them had been lovers before he'd disappeared. She'd introduced him to a little boy who looked so much like him it was hard to discount her story that he was the child's father. He desperately hoped it was true.
She was an extremely attractive woman. It wasn't difficult to imagine dating someone like her. But was she for real? Or was she part of his captors' evil head games? Was she here to trick him into revealing whatever secrets his subconscious was guarding so fiercely?
If only there was someone he could trust, really trust, to tell him what was real and what was not.
And then there was the troubling fact that he knew for certain his name wasn't Nick Cass. Nor had he grown up entirely in Rhode Island. But Laura apparently believed both to be true. He must've told the lies himself. But why? If he and Laura were lovers like she claimed, why hadn't he told her his real name or the most basic facts about his past? Why the deception?
Everywhere he turned, there were only questions and more questions. Frustration sang through his blood as sharply as his secret hope that his freedom, at least, was real. But he dared not share that hope with anyone. Not until he knew if anyone at all was telling him the truth.
Laura paused outside the hospital room, steeling herself not to react to Nick's emaciated state. It wasn't his fault he looked fresh out of a Nazi concentration camp, and he didn't deserve to see her cringe at the sight of his skeletal frame, hollow face or his shadowed blue eyes. God, his eyes. The haunted look in them was terrifying. Would he carry it with him forever?
The shrinks doubted he would recover the years stripped from his memory. But they felt he should recover enough to be a functional member of society once more with time and counseling. He should recover. Not he would.
At this point, she didn't care if his memory ever came back. She just wanted him back. The man who'd swept her off her feet in a whirlwind romance in Paris. The man who'd captured her heart and taught her what true love could be. If even part of that amazing man came back to her, it would be better than the hollow shell of a man on the other side of the door. She vowed to be grateful for whatever piece of him survived his ordeal. It was surely better than having no part of him at all. The past five years of waiting and wondering had been pure hell.
She knew he wasn't convinced yet that his rescue was real in spite of that first night of freedom they'd shared. They'd gone to her estate, where he'd bathed and eaten. Then she'd made love to him with all the pent-up passion and relief in her soul.
They'd both cried that night. She'd interpreted his tears as a cathartic release, but she'd been wrong. The shrinks told her he believed that night to have been some sort of elaborate torture by his captors to taunt him with what freedom would be like. Apparently, he'd been crying because the idea of going back into his box after what the two of them had shared had finally broken him. She'd broken him.
The man hadn't even known who she was, and she'd been so caught up in her euphoria at finding him that she'd never slowed down enough to realize how lost he'd been. Guilt at her thoughtlessness rolled through her. She'd always been a take-charge, full-speed-ahead kind of person. But that tendency had hurt the man she loved. Part of his paranoid state now was her fault. When would she learn to rein herself in? Had her impulsiveness cost her his trust forever?
She took a deep breath and pushed open the door. "Hey, handsome. How are you feeling today?"
"You're back." The abject relief in his voice broke her heart a little. What he clearly meant was, "So I get to live another day in this beautiful illusion? Thank God."
"The doctors say you can go home soon. You'll still need around-the-clock medical care, but I can hire nurses to look after you."
Terror flashed in his eyes at the mention of leaving the hospital.
She pretended not to see it and asked lightly, "Do you think when you actually come home to live with me and Adam you'll believe all of this is real? That you're free and you have a family?"
He answered slowly, "I don't know. I hope so."
Hey, progress! He'd spoken of his feelings. Maybe he'd finally accepted that he was not living in a dream or a terrible trick. She picked up his bony hand and cradled it in hers. It had been so strong once, so capable of giving her pleasure, so confident in its gestures. She murmured, "I love you, Nick. If you believe nothing else, please believe that."
"Even if you're lying, the notion makes me happy."
She smiled down at him. "Give it some time. Give me some time to prove this is real."
He shrugged. "It isn't like I have any choice. I'm along for the ride, here. So far, it's a great dream."
She smiled bravely while the knife twisted in her gut. "You'll be on your feet and kicking up your heels in no time. You'll be able to do whatever you want."
And please God, let that include staying with her and Adam. Their son desperately needed a father, and she desperately needed the man she loved. Yes, she hadn't seen him in five years. And yes, he might be an entirely different person than the one she fell in love with way back then. But surely, at least part of the intelligent, passionate, confident man who'd swept her off her feet was still in there, somewhere.
"How can you possibly be real?" he asked reflectively. "You're too perfect."
She laughed lightly, praying her panic at his declaration wasn't audible. "I'm far from perfect. Trust me."
"Trust. That is the thing, isn't it? Who will trust whom first in this little chess game?"
"This isn't a game, Nick. You're free, you're going home soon and I love you. That's the God's honest truth."
He made a noncommittal sound, and his cobalt gaze slid away from hers.
He really did have to give his captors credit for playing out this farce to the hilt. Six weeks since his "rescue" and still no hint of tossing him back in his box. He gazed around the plush bedroom suite, decorated in dark woods and deep, comforting colors. It was a far cry from his former prison. Hard to believe he actually caught himself missing the container's bare metal walls now and then. After a while, its confines had felt safe. Comforting. A steel embrace that kept out worse horrors.
He supposed if he had to trade one cage for another, this one wasn't bad. It was warmer and softer, and definitely had better food. The hallway door opened and Laura slipped into the room, wearing a slim wool skirt and a silk blouse that clung to her elegant curves in all the right places. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes bright. He added better-looking captors to his list.
In all fairness to her, she'd been nothing but kind and loving to him since she'd opened his box and let him out. She really was a delightful woman, witty and warm, with a quick smile that made her impossible to resist. And she was a devoted mother.
She moved to his side, and he closed his laptop. Yet again, his unreasoning fear at what lurked in his past had prevented him from typing in his real name to an internet search engine. Just a few simple keystrokes, and he'd finally know what monsters lurked in the recesses of his mind. But his terror was just too great. He'd sat there for an hour with the damned computer in his lap and never managed to type a single letter.
Leaning over the chair, Laura kissed him warmly. He didn't find it hard to believe that he'd loved her once. The only thing keeping him from giving in to serious attraction to the woman was the prospect of losing her. He figured as soon as he fell for her, that would be when the rug got yanked out from under him.
"How're you feeling today?" she asked eagerly, almost impatiently.
"Fine. You look about ready to burst. Do you have a surprise for me?" His gut clenched. He hated surprises. He was still waiting for the big, nasty one where his captors swept him out of this paradise and whisked him back to Hell Central.
"I do have a surprise for you, Nick. A good one, I hope. Are you strong enough for a bit of a shock?"
Every cell in his being froze. This was it. Sick heat and then icy cold washed through him, leaving him so nauseous he could hardly breathe. His heart pounded and his breathing accelerated so hard that, in seconds, he was light-headed.
His gaze darted about, seeking escape. Seeking a weapon. Anything to defend himself from the attack to come. His gaze lighted on the window. He could make a dash for it. Fling himself through the glass. It was three stories to the ground. If he went head first, the fall ought to kill him. If nothing else, maybe he'd be hurt so bad they couldn't throw him back in his box. Maybe they'd have to hospitalize him for a few more months.
"I'm pregnant, Nick. We're going to have a baby."
His mind went blank. Ever so slowly, his brain managed to form a thought. Not a particularly coherent one, but a thought. What new game was this?
"Did you hear me?" Laura asked excitedly. "You're going to be a father again."
His brain simply refused to absorb the information. He couldn't find a context to put the words in. Couldn't comprehend the purpose of this new torture.
Laura was laughing. " . .too fertile for our own good first time we made love we got Adam, and now, after that first night you were free, we're going to have another baby should really be more careful about birth control in the future "
She was making words and sentences and probably was even stringing them together in some sort of logical order. But he didn't understand a thing she was saying.
He did understand, though, that the hallway door was not bursting open. No thugs had come for him yet. The next few minutes passed with him murmuring inane nothings at proper intervals in response to Laura's babbling joy. And still no one had come.
Could it be? Was this real? Was Laura really pregnant and expecting his child?
Something cracked in his chest. It hurt, but it was a good kind of pain. Was he truly free? Was a life, a future with Laura and his children a possibility? Did he dare hope?
Hope. Now there was a concept.
A baby, huh? His and Laura's. A little brother or sister for Adam. How he'd love to experience all of itthe morning sickness and messy delivery and midnight feedings. Another child to crawl inside his heart and hold it in his or her tiny, precious hands. Lord knew, Adam had already completely wrapped him around his little finger in the short time he'd spent with the boy. Nick said a fervent prayer every night that, even if all the rest of this was a horrible, cruel lie, God would please let Adam be real. He loved the little boy with all his heart.
And now there might be another child for him to love?
Something exploded in his gut with all the bright fury of a fireworks display, burning away everything that had gone before, cauterizing old wounds, and leaving him empty. New. Reborn.
And then he gave that something a name. Joy.
He was free. Really, truly free. The nightmare was over. He surged up out of the chair and wrapped Laura in a crushing embrace. And then, for the first time, he cried for the right reasons.